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Arafat says Jews' visits to Temple Mount are 'a big crime'

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on Tuesday strongly condemned visits by Jews to the Temple Mount as a "big crime."

This is the second time in the past two weeks that Arafat has lashed out at visits by Jewish groups to the Temple Mount. The visits have been taking place for the past two months in coordination with the Jerusalem police, but were made public only recently.

Speaking before a group of children from a summer camp in Jerusalem at his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat said: "This is a big crime which cannot be ignored. Before this, they [the Jews] entered the Ibrahimi Mosque [Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron] and tried to pray there."

Palestinian sources said Arafat appears to be especially angered with some of the heads of the Wakf (Moslem religious trust) in Jerusalem who knew in advance of the decision to allow non-Muslims to visit the Temple Mount but did not inform him.

They said Arafat has reprimanded Wakf officials who allegedly gave Israel a green light to organize the visits.

The heads of the Wakf held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the repercussions of the visits. Sources close to the Wakf described the meeting as stormy, with some officials demanding that the gates to the Temple Mount be closed to prevent Jews from entering the compound. Others, however, argued against an escalation, saying the Wakf should conduct a dialogue with the Israeli authorities to solve the crisis.

Tuesday morning, some of the Wakf guards tried to shut one of the gates leading to the Temple Mount after a Jewish group entered the area under police protection. The guards reported to the Wakf that some of the Jews were seen holding prayer books and reading from the Torah while they were inside the compound.

The Wakf is portraying the organized visits as "attempts by Jewish extremists to storm the holy Aksa Mosque."

"What happened today is a serious provocation of the feelings of Muslims," said Muhammad Hussein, director of the Aksa Mosque. "The occupation authorities alone bear the consequences of any development that could occur inside the mosque. We have warned the Israeli police in the past about a unilateral decision to allow such visits to take place."

The Palestinian Authority's official news agency, WAFA, claimed that some of the "Jewish settlers" who allegedly stormed the mosque were carrying maps and conducting measurements "in a suspicious manner," insinuating that they are preparing to destroy the mosques and replace them with a synagogue.

At the meeting with the summer camp children from St. George's School in Jerusalem, Arafat praised them as a generation "representing sacrifices and steadfastness," and urged them to learn from the example of Fares Odeh, a 13-year-old boy from the Gaza Strip who was photographed throwing stones at an IDF tank before he was shot dead.

"I tell you that we will march together towards Jerusalem," he said. "You represent the strong will and determination of this people."

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